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Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.It is weird to reach an age, out here in the middle distance, where I no longer recognize Brangelina or a memorial to someone who has died. Standing in the check-out line at the grocery store, I see these shining, young faces and wonder: Is she an actress? A musician? Or is she famous for being famous?
Our celebrity culture breeds a short attention span and has become a parody of itself. Even so, most of us have thrilled to a celebrity sighting or two in our lifetimes, or at the very least have been guilty of seeking one.
Growing up in Tennessee, my exposure to famous people revolved around music, and more often than not, I was not even aware of the breadth of their fame. My best friend’s grandfather was a performer at the Grand Ole Opry most Saturday nights, and when Lynn and I went to the Opry we sat on the bench backstage watching the waiting acts mill about, tuning their guitars, touching up their hair and makeup. One night a fiddle player asked me to hold his fiddle while he tied his shoe, and a tall older man leaned down afterward to sign an autograph. His name was Ernest Tubb. Years later I found that slip of paper, and on it another name whose face I hadn’t recognized — Loretta Lynn.
My family moved to Jackson during my junior high years, and I remember a very pretty girl, Debbie, who was in most of my classes. She was quiet and didn’t dance and juggle for popularity as I did, as the girls I wanted to be like did. It took moving away from Jackson and growing up significantly for me to realize that her father was the great rockabilly songwriter Carl Perkins.
Sheer nosiness and the thrill of sneaking around late at night led me, in high school, to a back yard fence in East Memphis, beyond which lay the suburban house and swimming pool of Isaac Hayes, wildly famous at that time for the musical theme from Shaft. Boogie Nights hasn’t been made yet, but its poolside scene was what I imagined behind that fence — curvy women in high heels and bikinis, drinks and drugs, men cutting show biz deals, and the lure of imminent sex. A friend boosted me up and I peered over: nothing but the silvery nocturnal sight of undisturbed water and a silent concrete patio.
Years later, living in Nashville, I went out one night with that same friend to a club, the Exit In. We were semi-grownups now; I was married and had a kid. It was songwriter showcase night and the place was packed, the audience jammed shoulder-to-shoulder around long common tables. We had come to see Bobby Bare, but my friend’s mouth gaped as he stared at the slightly scary looking guy wedged up against my right shoulder. He had a thick black beard, piercing dark eyes, and a shaved head as shiny as a billiard ball. At my friend’s urging, I picked up my beer, turned to him and asked his name. He was a songwriter and the author of one of my little girl’s favorite books. His name was Shel Silverstein.
We lived in Nashville for a good while, until our family had grown to four children, three of them bouncing baby boys. My neighborhood bordered Music Row and the Pancake Pantry, a local breakfast joint where the waitresses were patient with spills and loved babies. I spent a lot of time there, shoveling pancakes into three open mouths and letting someone else do the cooking. I spotted Lyle Lovett there one morning, leaning across a table for two, deep in conversation with a beautiful young woman.
One day my daughter and I sat on one side of a booth, and left the other side to the boys, now toddlers, to bounce up and down while we waited for our food. Across the top of the booth I could see two neatly coifed heads, one with tight silver curls, the other black, sprayed, and teased to a stiff bouffant. I warned the boys not to let their sticky fngers stray. They bounced and bounced and finally the elderly couple stood up to leave. I apologized to them for the disruption.
“Don’t worry, honey, they don’t bother us a bit,” the man said.
He was Roy Acuff and on his arm was Miss Kitty Wells, the King and Queen of Country Music.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.